Friday, November 5, 2010

Freedom of speech is just one of the few undeniable rights that the First Amendment to the Constitution grants every American citizen.

As technology has evolved over the years, the U.S. Supreme Court has had to re-interpret its very meaning that was unimagined by our countries forefathers. From radios to televisions, the possibilities in which Americans can communicate have tested its fundamentals.

On Tuesday Nov. 2, the U.S. Supreme Court will begin to listen to the first oral arguments in a case of technology that is very dear to many of this generation: video games.

The case, Schwarzenegger v. Entertainment Merchants Association and Entertainment Software Association, relates to a 2005 California law which aims to regulate the sale and rental of “violent” computer and video games to minors.

So how does a law restricting the sale or rental of video games to minors infringe on the rights the First Amendment grants to everyone?

Like books, music and movies which are all protected under the First Amendment, video games contain the same type of artistic expression that these media contain. Furthermore establishing laws that place content-based bans on protected expressions directly violates this amendment.

The basis of California’s argument is on the grounds that violent video game leads to violence in minors. California also compares video games to pornography. In the U.S. Supreme Court case Ginsberg v. New York it was ruled that material such as pornography is harmful to children and gives the states the power to protect minors from such harms.

The fact is violence – let alone video game violence – has never been scientifically proven as harmful to minors. That is the main reason two lower courts of this case and twelve other courts in similar cases have already found age-based, content restriction laws unconstitutional.

As it stands right now, computer and video games are rated through the use of a self-regulatory body, The Entertainment Software Rating Board (ESRB), similar to what the Motion Picture Association (MPAA) does for the movie industry. The ESRB, which the Federal Trade Commission (FTC) has called the “most comprehensive” of all media rating systems, provides an already detailed, widely-used means in which violent games can be identified.

The FTC has further disclosed in reports that of all media-based (e.g., movies and music) rating system, the ESRB guidelines are upheld the most by retailers across the country.

The fact that California law makers are trying to pass a law restricting sales to minors should be very scary to anyone that values their freedom of expression. The vagueness of the law about what is and isn’t appropriate violence for minors and the singling out of these games, could have a significant effect on the creativity of game makers and make retailers reluctant to carry such games.

If this law is upheld by the U.S. Supreme Court, what is to stop lawmakers from regulating other forms of media – movies, television, music, books, the news – that contain acts of violence?

If California wants to protect minors from obtaining violent video games, constructing a law that potentially limits the freedoms of expressions of Americans is not the answer.

The proper tools are already in place for parents to prevent minors from purchasing or playing violent video games. California, as well as any other state government that wishes to protect minors, needs to educate and not enforce such restrictions that eliminate the responsibilities of parenting.

Education of the ESRB ratings through joint collaborations between the government and the ESRB is a start. Furthermore each major video game system currently has controls implemented that can limit the play of video games based on ratings. The ignorance of parents doesn’t mean a law should be put in place.

Hopefully the Supreme Court will come to the same conclusion that two lower courts have already agreed upon regarding this case. Video games are interactive stories that should be treated the same as all forms of expressive communication.

Thursday, May 20, 2010

Not so Golden Axe

The following story was submitted for my final paper for my Feature Article class in mid May.

You arrive at work finding dead silence. One by one are your coworkers are called into a meeting with the bosses.

Finally, it’s your turn to meet with the brass and a representative of HR in the solitude of a desolate office. Emerging, from the ominous meeting, you have been given one hour to collect your personal belongings. The corporate axe has been thrust down; you’ve just been fired.

This April, former superpower of the gaming industry, SEGA unsheathed its corporate axe reducing its employee count by 73. Cutting what they considered redundant positions between their San Francisco and London branches as they begin to restructure their business model for a more digital future.

Coming to work employees of Sega found this in their inbox as reproduced from the gaming website Kotaku.

“As many of you already know, today SEGA will implement a reorganization of its businesses within the American and EMEA markets. The restructure reflects both the changing face of the global video games market and a need to improve efficiencies within the operation.”

Further on in the email.

“Please be available in case you are called to a meeting with your department head. I also ask that everyone please be understanding of the situation and sensitive to your friends and colleagues during this difficult time.

All other meetings will be cancelled and I will let everyone know later this morning when the layoffs are complete.”

A SEGA employee who asked to remain anonymous described why this had to happen.

“The problem here as I see it as that there was heavy investment in resources at the start of this console generation. “When new consoles come out, people (customers) rush out and buy whatever they can to fill their libraries. But this tapers off and people start buying only occasionally, or the sequels for their favorite game that gen. The industry thus is having a shakedown on resources that aren't being used.”

The last year for the video game industry has seen its share of company shakedowns and restructuring as the U.S. economy’s job market continues to look for stability amongst the current economic recession.

2009 went down as the worst year for employment in the video game industry. According to M2 Research, a research and marketing company specializing in the entertainment field. An estimated record breaking 11,488 layoffs occurred between the ends of 2008 to 2009.

From the beginning of the economic spiral, the U.S. has bore the brunt of the industry downsizing, carrying 71 percent of the total layoffs.

“The industry isn't healthy; no one has made money in the past 2 years. Most large publishers have lost money this past financial year,” states the employee from SEGA.

Not singling out just SEGA, major industry players; Activision, EA, Ubisoft and Square-Enix have all had to cut costs by parting ways with studios and the employees that fill them.

By the end of the year in November, the industry saw EA studious announce the single largest downsizing. Announcing that by April 2010, they would reduce their company by 1,500 jobs, roughly 10 percent of their workforce in an effort to reduce costs by over a 100 million yearly.

This came on the heels of their announcement of a 391 million dollar decrease in revenues from the previous year.

As companies are making cuts, development teams that were some of the industries most respected and envied creators found their doors closing. Pandemic, 3D Realms, Grin, and Factor 5 minds responsible for some gaming’s biggest blockbusters of the past are now gaming history.

As for 2010 this alarming industry trend has yet to slow down.

Major layoffs for Activision in February saw over 100 jobs phased out as in-house developers Radical, Luxoflux, and Neversoft felt the effects of the shrinking economy.

Like the 73 former employees of SEGA, layoffs have left many talented industry members in seek of new jobs, companies, or endeavors. Talented industry members with proven resumes looking for work in what is becoming a more and more saturated market.

Finding work for a newcomer right out of school may be difficult according to the unnamed employee at SEGA. “If you don't have a semi-rare secondary skill that you can bring to your primary occupation, I would think it's really hard without being well connected.”

“If you are just a John Doe who wants a job in the game industry, then you are going to have a hard time,” they go on saying. “This is mainly because there are a lot of talented people. I am constantly blown away by the extremely intelligent and talented people I meet on a day to day basis.”

So what does this mean for someone straight out of college, looking to get their foot in the door? With 11,000 plus industry veterans already out in the market looking for work the game industry is going to be quite competitive over the next couple of years.

“It scares me a lot to know that after all the money I spent going to college to get my degree, I may not be able to find a job in the field I’ve studied for,” says Amanda Khoury, 21 and game art major at The Art Institute of California, Orange County.

In March, according to the NPD group, for the first time in the last six months, the industry saw financial of growth from the previous year. With the help of several popular new releases, game sales raked in $875.3 million, an increase of 10 percent.

Numbers like these do show some light at the end of the tunnel for the industry. As the industry starts its prep for the holiday season coming up, there should be some stability for the short haul.

“You won't see layoffs until next year, when everyone’s financial reports come in for this year, says the employee at SEGA. “So in the short term, I think there will be stabilization. In the longer term, I would expect an upturn as new hardware comes to market, but there will always be shakedowns.”


Saturday, May 1, 2010

Darksiders: A Link to the Past

Derivative, unoriginal, or just a blatant rip-off—words used to describe potentially one of 2010’s biggest sleeper hits, Vigil games debut Darksiders. Homage to some of gaming’s greatest memories of the past decade; Zelda, Devil May Cry, Portal, and even the cult classic Panzer Dragoon.

But after mashing through the epic slash fest, the word that truly comes to mind for Darksiders is inspirational.

By no means is Darksiders the game that is going to inspire and drive the industry forward. Instead it is the game that got me to get off my ass to reach into my pile of shame and dust off the one game that was the main force behind the design of Darksiders, The Legend of Zelda: Ocarina of Time.

Growing up, I always missed out on the many adventures of Link and his never ending quests to thwart Ganon, rescue Zelda and restore peace and balance to Hyrule. I wasn’t a Nintendo hater or anything, I had the original NES. It was just that there was something about the vibe, bravado that Sega exuberated back in the early to mid nineties that kept me from the man in green tights.

From a Genesis to a Saturn, on to the Dreamcast, it took me until the release of the GameCube to become reacquainted with Nintendo. When Wind Waker came out I gave Link another go, but half way through the voyage, my mind became lost at sea and boredom of backtracking eventually sank me from finishing.

Well back to 2010 and I hadn’t given Link and his entourage much thought unless I was using them to decimate foes in Super Smash Bros. That is until Darksiders arrived.

Being a huge fan of the hack and slash genre, I knew Darksiders was going to be right up my alley. God of War, Devil May Cry, Onimusha, Ninja Gaiden, all had fallen before me and I was craving for another good romp before God of War 3 and Dante’s Inferno.

As been there and done that as Darksiders melee combat is, to my surprise (I knew it was compared to Zelda) the design structure was such a refreshing change from the just hack and slash your way through every enemy after enemy, boss after boss style of its predecessors. Don’t get me wrong, I love ripping my adversaries’ limb from limb, but to mix it up with puzzles was a refreshing change.

It was this refreshing change that inspired me along with a little push from my Zelda loving girlfriend to play what many consider the greatest game of all time.

Well it may be 2010, but I have to say Zelda: Oot holds up quite well. The controls are a little archaic, (well all remember how hideous the N64 controller was), but the puzzle design of the temples is definitely what separates it from its imitator Darksiders.

The water and desert temple alone stand the test of time as some of the best designed puzzles in a game to date. Holding up to the intricacies of the more recent Portal in terms of thought provoking enigmas.

Raising and lowering the levels of water or traveling back and forth through time, the abstract ways in which Link must traverse the many labyrinths in Zelda: Oot is where War and Darksiders pales in comparison.

After my time with Darksiders I was at a disagreement with what many the reviewers were saying about its mediocrity. It wasn’t on par with any of its predecessors in terms of combat, but the adventure crafted beforehand was at the time exhilarating and something I wanted to see more in games of this genre. Darksiders had become an instant classic to me.

But after completing Zelda: Oot, my opinion of Darksiders began to change. Don’t get me wrong I still whole heartedly recommend Darksiders to anyone waiting for the next Miyamoto/Aonuma adventure. It’s a truly competent game that does an admirable job of paying its respects to the gaming god’s.

It’s just after completing Zelda: Oot my eyes were opened to the magic of what I was missing all the years ago when I was marching to the tune of “Sega does what Nintendoesn’t”.

Since completing Zelda: Oot, I have moved on to the more recent venture for Link in Twilight Princess and have to say, so far, I may actually be enjoying it more than Oot, but I’ll save that judgment for when peace is once again restored to Hyrule.

Friday, April 30, 2010

Unlimited Lives

When your young people always ask "What do you want to be when you grow up?” It's one of those age old questions that is usually responded to something such as; a fireman, astronaut, or something fictional. No kid ever answers that with a more realistic response like car salesman, waiter, or for me, a store manager.

Growing up, I wanted to be part in some facet with the world of video games. Over the years I had developed a passion for expressing my opinions and thoughts about games with my friends. To the point were I was the go-to guy amongst them for all things video game related.

By the age of 14, my first real inspiration on what I could do to contribute to the game industry came from having a letter published for the now defunct GameFan magazine. My letter wasn't anything spectacular, but the fact that my name was in print captivated me to pursue a journalism degree in college.

In 2002, while I was in the midst of college career I found a job right up my alley, working at a freshly rebranded retailer in the video game industry.
What better way to earn some money as I finished up school, getting paid to talk about what I loved. With the knowledge I had acquired over the years, I was quite successful doing my job.

Six months passed and I had moved from seasonal employee all the way to store manager. The first store I was responsible for was a tiny hole in the wall, but it was a stepping stone in what was slowly turning into a career.

Six years later and another promotion, to an area manager role, my future was looking bright. School and journalism had become an afterthought.

The company I worked for was the one of the fastest growing retail companies in the world and had matured into reputable Fortune 500 business.

I wasn’t doing my ideal trade, but the pay was way better than what a starting writer makes. I had medical benefits, and I was still working with my passion.

By the beginning of 2009, the passion I had as a child was beginning to subside. The company had filled their pool of upper management candidates too high and due to some corporate politics I found myself demoted back to a store manager position.

I’ve always heard it’s better to fire rather than demote, for an employee can lose their ambitions. I was a unique situation; my demotion came from a lack of company openings, rather than actual failure.

But as the year went on, I found myself not being given the chance anymore to show my leadership qualities. I was still counted on to help my company groom potential prospects, but I soon watched the next opportunities given to the ones I helped mold.

After spending seven years building a career, setting forth a plan to settle on, I found my future falling apart before my eyes. My opportunities had passed and I was left to settle for meritocracy.

If you know me, I’m not one to settle so easy. I began to voice my feelings about the situation that were occurring, but they fell upon deaf ears.

My resentment showed in my work, I wasn’t happy. I was still performing my duties, but I grew an unprofessional attitude that began to rub enough of my supervisors the wrong way. By August I had been fired.

With the economy and job market in a decline what was I going to do? I was burnt on retail, but after seven years, it was all my resume was good for.

It has been said by many such as Alexander Graham Bell and Helen Keller that “When one door closes another one opens” To an enthusiast of video games, this can be related to a “continue”, or a second chance to complete a goal.

The door for retail was closing and I was glad to twist the key in the lock, but in pursuit of my retail career, I had given up journalism for the comforts of an easy future.

Finishing my journalism degree was going to take a lot of extra courses to be readmitted. I had dropped out of state college, ending up academically disqualified in the process.

Making things harder, I had used up all of my retake credits at junior college and was out of “continues” to make up the classes I essentially failed. But, “continues” or not I was going to make my second chance happen even if I had to start over.

I went back to the state school to see what I had to do to finish. It turns out that a door once close had just been recently opened.

A new rule had been passed where upon transferring from junior college to state, a fresh set of re-take credits are given. I had been given another “continue” to finish my degree.

Life can have a strange way of working itself out. If I had left my job anytime sooner I would have had to take classes for close to two years, just to be readmitted for my final year.

With my new chance I am back in school finishing my journalism degree. I’ve also landed a job working at an actual video game publisher, learning the day to day facets of how games are made.

It’s not often we are fortunate to get another go at something, but this gamer is definitely going to make sure no more “continues” are ever needed.

Six for Sixty

Its 5:00 a.m. and the alarm is buzzing, time to put on his yellow soled running shoes. In less than an hour he’s on the trail, beach by his side, the sound of the crashing waves driving him forward.This may seem like a typical morning for the average runner, but Pall Gudgeirsson isn’t your average runner.

A tall slender man, lanky even. With hair speckled with grey and wisdom, running gave Gudgeirsson back his natural body.

At the age of 56, feeling tired and out of shape, he looked at running as a way to get his life back on track. “It was time to pause and do something else,” Gudgeirsson says. He found the answer in his work.

As assistant city manager and treasurer of San Clemente, he had helped put together financing for a new 2.3 mile beach trail for the city.

“It tied directly into work and was this really cool trail,” Gudgeirsson says. “Initially I could barely run one mile, but the trail was the only place I ran, sort of my training ground."

Soon that one mile, became two, then three, eventually settling to his normal five mile run with the ocean by his side, losing 30 pounds in the process.

What had started off as a way to improve his health became fun, almost an obsession, but Gudgeirsson wouldn’t say he’s addicted.

“You definitely get where you’re really anxious,” Gudgeirsson says. “If I don’t run six or seven times a week, it’s like your day is not complete. You’re trying to get that runner’s high, but I won’t say it’s an addiction.”

Running is also were Gudgeirsson gets some of his best thinking done, be it for work or personal. “You’d be amazed at the ideas and stuff that you think about on your run, because really you have nothing else to do.”

In 2007, wanting to take his new found passion to the next level; he entered his first 5k run, the Ocean Festival Fun Run in his hometown.

too much into the name, Gudgeirsson wasn’t fully aware of what he was getting into. “I didn’t realize it was a race, it was organized, but I thought it was just for fun.”

He ended up finishing second in his age group, even winning a medal. “Later I found out there were only two people in my age group,” Gudgeirsson jokes. “Though last year there was a whole bunch and I ended up finishing third.”

In 2008, Gudgeirsson decided to push his running even more, entering his first half marathon. A rainy, windy event in Huntington Beach, he finished 2,601 out of 8,402.

The next day back at work, still feeling that “runner’s high”, with a little motivation from some friends at the city and an inspirational email from Dean Karnazes, the UltraMarathon Man, (50 marathons in 50 days across 50 states), Gudgeirsson signed up for his first full marathon. “At first I was saying your nuts, but by the end of the day I just signed up.”

With the Rock ‘n’ Roll marathon in San Diego later that year set, Gudgeirsson began to intensify his training. The correlation between running and work became even clearer to him.

“You’re always planning runs, you’re always planning goals, you’re always planning objectives and that’s the same thing I do at work,” Gudgeirsson says.

He had planned his training meticulously for his marathon run, but sometimes it’s hard to plan for the unexpected. “I did so many things wrong, it was just crazy.”

He spent the three days before on his feet teaching, thinking he was resting his legs by not running. He stayed in downtown San Diego, waking every hour to the many sirens crying throughout the night.

In the morning he found that all the shuttles were full so he decided that the two mile walk before the 26.2 mile race wouldn’t be so bad. It was mostly uphill.

The longest run he had done before the marathon was 17 miles. At mile 20, he had hit a wall. “I realized that was really the halfway point of the race,” Gudgeirsson recalls. 6.2 miles left, the hardest part was still to come.

“I had about three miles to go, my feet blistered up. It was the longest three miles I ever ran,” Gudgeirsson says. “That’s mostly what worries me. It’s not being able to run it or finish it; it’s if your feet blister up.”

4:42:10 that was the time from when the gun went off to when Gudgeirsson had crossed the finish line. Jumping up and down cheering for him, was his wife Vicki as he made his final strides to completion, finishing 66th in his age group.

“I got my bagel, banana, water and medal. It was worth it,” Gudgeirsson says.

What started off as a short run down a beach trail had culminated in one of the most significant milestones a runner can complete.

Turning 60, this year, one would imagine Gudgeirsson would start letting up. For most people this is an achievement on its own, but for him it was just another milestone to set a goal towards.

Taking inspiration from the man who helped give him that nudge to run his first full marathon, the UltraMarathon Man, Gudgeirsson had set his plan.

Six half marathons over six straight weeks is the target for his birthday. Starting in Santa Monica., Gudgeirsson would continue his pace through Phoenix, Carlsbad, San Clemente (his own run), Huntington Beach, and finally finishing in Rancho Santa Fe, just after the momentous occasion.

The largest of his six races was in Phoenix Arizona, the P.F. Chang’s Rock ‘n’ Roll half marathon, with about 30,000 participants. “John McCain was at the start cheering everyone on, which was kind of fun,” Gudgeirsson recalls.

In keeping with his goal, Gudgeirsson had to be a little creative. For the fourth week of his race to 60 there was no half marathon for him to run. So with the help of some friends, Gudgeirsson put together a special race, his own RunPallRun event.

Starting on the bluffs above Dana Point harbor looking upon a stunning sunrise, along with 5 others, Gudgeirsson made the 13.1 mile run into San Clemente. “We had medals, we had t-shirts. That was my favorite race,” he says.

With the finish line in sight, one race left for Gudgeirsson, Rancho Santa Fe. “It was very competitive and hardest one of the 6 due to hills,” he says.

When it was all said and done Gudgeirsson finished 748 of around 3,500. “It feels really good to have met another goal and the support from everyone was cool.”

Having completed a marathon and just finishing his symbolic 60th birthday challenge, in his short competitive career, Gudgeirsson has one box left to check off his runners list.

Born in Iceland, Gudgeirsson made the move over to the United States at the age of 14, but it is in his homeland that his final challenge awaits.

When he ran the San Diego marathon he wore a shirt that asked “Are we in Reykjavik yet?”

August 21st, 2010 the Reykjavik Marathon takes place. “The pressure is on because all the relatives are up there,” Gudgeirsson says. “But I run, rain or shine.”

Tuesday, October 20, 2009

Imperfect Pefection - Is that neck hair on my screen?

Why does almost every character in today's video games look like they just stepped out of Supercuts?

Space Marines with their clean-cut neck lines, their ever permanent 4 o'clock shadows. Pre-pubescent teens, burdened with Armageddon, rockin' their scene kid flips--It's just not life.

Enter Nathan Drake, he's not a space marine and he's definitely not some tight leather pants wearing, 100 zippers sparkling, whiny, emo-punk.

Touted as the "every man" it's the subtle flaws that make him stand out in the sea of the aforementioned. His awkward elegance and choreographed clumsiness emerge, creating a reality that makes the fantasy believable.

Immersion in games-- the big trend/buzz word that won't be going away anytime soon. From the epic, non-linear, sandbox titles (Fallout3, GTA, WOW) to the simpler, yet sophisticated mind benders (Scribblenauts, Portal)--engrossing and captivating the user on subconscious levels.

We play games so much to escape the reality that surrounds us. Sliding into roles to save a princess, fight off a zombie apocalypse, or just take the Browns to the Super Bowl. But it's rare that the less apparent complexity of a game, can lead to possibly the current pinnacle of game immersion.

With Uncharted 2: Among Thieves, Naughty Dog has upped the ante in terms of immersion. The introductory/tutorial train wreck stage blurs the borders of game play and cutscene. At first glance it's hard to even know what you're looking at is actually in your direct control. (Note; I must of stared at Nathan hanging from the train for almost a minute.)

Among Thieves beautiful jungle environments, ancient ruins, snow capped mountains painted by a camera that engages both the visual and auditory senses would fail to immerse the gamer if it wasn't for the games most powerful feature, emotion.

Emotion, be it conveyed through well acted dialouge or flawless natural gestures is truly the heart of Among Thieves. Yes, from time to time, Among Thieves reminds you its a game (picking up treasure, with the look at it prompt on-screen), but the emotion pouring from its characters undoubtedly bridges the gap between game and reality. And seems to take the first true step to bridge games and movies.

Hell your girlfriend may even actually believe its one. (Note: Mine knew better, but was still inclined to watch me play through the whole adventure. I was even forbid from finishing it without her.)